BETWEEN THE TRIAL of Chelsea (formerly known as Bradley) Manning and the revelations of Edward Snowden, the debate regarding the leakers and their information has focused primarily on the balance between liberty and security, or between government transparency and secrecy. This is a necessary, even overdue, discussion. But it is also important to reflect upon the lasting damage these unauthorized disclosures will have on future U.S. intelligence collection.
Both Manning and Snowden betrayed the public trust and disclosed national-security information that they had sworn to protect. Both seriously impeded America’s future ability to recruit foreign sources that provide human intelligence (HUMINT). And both harmed America’s ability to enter into cooperative relationships regarding signals intelligence (SIGINT) with foreign partner intelligence agencies—termed “liaison services” in the business.
The degree of access with which Manning was entrusted—hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, in addition to the so-called war logs of Afghanistan and Iraq—can be traced to the U.S. intelligence-community reforms suggested by the 9/11 Commission after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The 9/11 Commission criticized the U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement communities for not connecting the dots and for hoarding information, thus leaving America vulnerable on 9/11. In the reckoning during the post-9/11 intelligence reforms, the enduring counterintelligence principle of “need to know” was transformed into “need to share,” a new paradigm that mandated that intelligence agencies share information broadly across bureaucratic lines and prepare analysis for the widest possible dissemination in order to prevent intelligence stovepiping.
This expansive conception of information sharing enabled a young army intelligence analyst to access diplomatic cables from around the world that had nothing to do with her core duties as a military-intelligence analyst serving in the Middle East. This access illustrates the distance that the intelligence-community pendulum has swung in the direction of almost-blind information sharing. If an event of the magnitude of 9/11 forced the pendulum in the direction of increased sharing, more recent events such as the Manning and Snowden leaks could reverse the trend back toward greater compartmentalization, especially involving more stringent information-technology protection.
TO CALCULATE or quantify the amount of damage that a document might cause if improperly disclosed, the U.S. government looks to the sliding scale of its classification system; logically, the more sensitive a document, the higher the classification. According to Executive Order 12356, revelation of a “Confidential” document causes “damage” to U.S. national security, exposure of a “Secret” document causes “serious damage” and a “Top Secret” document’s contents would cause “exceptionally grave damage” if improperly disclosed. This system makes sense for characterizing damage to U.S. national security at a fixed point in time, but it is woefully inadequate to assess the future impact of such disclosures. It may not be possible to charge a leaker under the law on the basis of what might have been obtained had it not been for their negligent public disclosures, but despite the lack of legal recourse, it is worth at least discussing the intelligence ramifications past the time and date stamp on the document itself. It is true that time horizons factor into damage assessments because many classified documents contain automatic declassification dates that usually range from ten to thirty years in the future. However, most documents dealing with HUMINT sources and SIGINT methods usually fall under several exemption codes and are not automatically declassified at any point in time.
It remains hotly debated whether Manning’s revelations actually led to the deaths of either U.S. soldiers or foreign sources. For instance, in 2010 Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that “the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family” might be on Manning’s hands. Indeed, it is easy to see why this could be the case judging by the sheer volume, and the classification levels, of material that was released. Others have disputed this claim based on the recent courtroom testimony by the Pentagon’s damage-assessment team in the Manning trial. Mullen may not have been referring exclusively to American military deaths that may have been caused because the locations, timing or movements of soldiers were divulged, but rather in terms of revenge attacks whose seeds may have germinated in the outrage over American military mistakes caught on film, such as the widely known case of the helicopter pilot accidentally engaging a media crew or other tragic incidents involving civilians (described by the misnomer “collateral damage”).
Nevertheless, the scope of this debate so far has been about water under the bridge. It would be appropriate to consider the water that will now not pass under said bridge to fill American intelligence aquifers. Thus far the debate about the damage wrought by Manning and Snowden has only dealt with what has been revealed about U.S. intelligence and diplomacy; surprisingly, there has been little public discourse regarding the future implications for U.S. intelligence of their wanton actions. Perhaps the popular choice of terms is to blame for this narrow discourse. The term “leak” suggests a drip that, over time, might result in a problem but in the short term is more of a nuisance than an emergency. The opposite of a deluge, of course, is a drought. If intelligence agencies must perform all-source analysis in order to connect the proverbial dots, what happens if a single important dot never materializes?
Of course, a hypothetical argument is difficult to prove and might not be considered as evidence in a court of law, but the prosecution team in the Manning case did not even attempt to make the argument about future intelligence losses and collection efforts that will be stillborn because of the leaks. During the sentencing phase the prosecution did solicit testimony about the leaks’ impact on American diplomacy, but consideration of future effects stopped there. This is surprising because future loss of earnings (if intelligence gained is the profit derived from the investment of national-security resources) is often considered in legal cases. Granted, the Manning trial is a criminal case under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, not a civil suit, but there is a logical parallel between what income is to an injured person and what intelligence is to a nation: the latter both require the former to thrive.
WHAT WOULD future losses to American intelligence actually look like? Recruiting human-intelligence sources is already a difficult task, made harder by Manning’s treachery in particular. A representative of a hostile government or a member of a terrorist network may wish to cooperate with American intelligence for any number of reasons, provided his safety can be reasonably assured. If he is considering cooperation, he will look for an American official who is a discreet professional to provide his information. He may study the Americans for a long time in order to make up his mind about such a potentially life-changing decision. Indeed, any slipup on the part of the recruiting officer, such as indiscretion or sloppy agent tradecraft, could very well cost the foreign agent his life and potentially even jeopardize the well-being of his family in his home country. This is serious business, and a potential foreign agent will weigh carefully the risks and benefits of a clandestine relationship with the U.S. government. The potential agent must be satisfied that the Americans can assure his safety, and, of course, these assurances must be credible.
Recruitment of a foreign source may take many forms. For instance, a potential source may be sought out due to his placement and access, approached by a CIA case officer or FBI special agent. He might walk into a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad and volunteer his services. Or he may seek out an American representative at a diplomatic function, although it will not be obvious for him to know who is an intelligence officer. Perhaps he will need some convincing that the risk is worth the reward and, in any case, the risks will be minimized by clandestine interactions with well-trained professionals.
But how can the U.S. government continue to attract these sorts of people whose information our policy makers and defense planners urgently need? Human-intelligence sources have a nuanced risk calculus and are motivated to provide secrets for a range of reasons, including money, ideology, ego, revenge or some combination of these. But in all cases potential sources must be reassured that hushed words stated in confidence won’t endanger them in the next tranche of leaked information. The consequences for diplomats, military officers or security personnel of hostile regimes or terrorist networks would be swift and severe. Given this guaranteed punishment, it is wholly understandable that a potential foreign agent may decide against walking into a U.S. embassy, seeking out a U.S. representative or accepting a follow-up meeting with an American. In fact, those who would face the harshest retribution if exposed have the information most desired by U.S. policy makers.Image: Pullquote: Mass disclosure of classified information was never part of the risk calculus of a potential human-intelligence source. Surely, it is now.Essay Types: Essay